Academics Urge Universities To Abandon Fossil Fuel-Funded Research
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Academics Urge Universities To Abandon Fossil Fuel-Funded Research

Ellen Knight April 15, 2022

Eminent academics are urging universities to reject cash offered by fossil fuel companies for climate research, even if said research is for green energy solutions.

US climate scientist Michael Mann, NASA data scientist Peter Kalmus, and former archbishop of Canterbury-turned climate activist Rowan Williams, are amongst nearly 500 academics from the UK and USA who are signatories on an open letter addressed to all university leaders in both countries.

According to the letter, published in the Guardian, accepting money in any context from oil and gas companies amounts to ‘an inherent conflict of interest’ that could ‘taint’ and ‘compromise’ research and academic freedoms. The letter accuses these companies of attempting to ‘greenwash’ themselves through funding university projects, and potentially skew research findings.

Drawing comparisons to disinformation campaigns run by the tobacco industry, the letter requests universities treat fossil fuel companies with the same rejection that they would tobacco-funded research projects.

‘Aiding corporate greenwashing’

As the letter says: ‘Universities and the research they produce are vital to delivering a rapid, just transition away from fossil fuels. However, such efforts are undermined by fossil fuel industry funding.

‘Academics should not be forced to choose between researching climate solutions and inadvertently aiding corporate greenwashing.’

Speaking to the Guardian, Michael Mann – director of Pennsylvania State University’s Earth System Science Center – said: ‘This sort of funding has been used to compromise leading academic institutions. It’s a two-for for polluters: they purchase the imprimatur of these institutions and their presumed authority and objectivity, while funding research that often translates into advocacy for false solutions and “kick the can down the road” prescriptions like massive carbon capture, which is unproven at scale, and geoengineering, which is downright dangerous.

‘That is entirely the wrong path forward.’

Similarly, Genevieve Guenther, affiliate of the New School University, New York, and founder and director of the End Climate Silence campaign, also told the Guardian: ‘Funding research enables oil and gas companies to ground their promotional statements in enough truth to give substance to the green shadows in which they hide their most polluting and deadly activities.

‘We must remove fossil-energy interests from our institutions so that our children can have a chance at a liveable future.’

Relying on public funding

At the end of April, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is expected to published the third section of its report on climate science that will, according to the Guardian, ‘[examine] the potential ways of cutting greenhouse gas emissions […] [and] will include technology such as renewable energy and nuclear power, and novel ideas such as sucking carbon dioxide out of the air.’

This report will hopefully reveal some scientific solutions to the climate crisis – but these solutions will require ‘tens or hundreds of billions of pounds’ of funding worldwide.

Signatory and economic anthropologist Jason Hickel, a fellow of the London School of Economics, told the Guardian this money should come from governments: ‘The US and UK are among the richest countries on Earth, and their governments enjoy total monetary sovereignty. They have the capacity to finance the necessary research many times over, at the touch of a button.

‘Most of the major innovations and public projects that have changed history over the past century have relied on public funding for research.’

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Ellen is a freelance journalist studying MA Broadcast Journalism at Cardiff University. Her work has appeared in publications such as Teen Vogue and Al Jazeera, and tends to focus on politics and current affairs. Her involvement in student radio station Burn FM lead to an interview she conducted winning Student Radio Moment of the Year in 2022. She has been writing for Freshered since February 2022. You can follow her on Twitter @ellenmjknight